Healthtech Leader of the Month: Shyam Natarajan

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For the December installment of the Healthtech Leader of the Month series, we spoke to Shyam Natarajan, Co-Founder and CEO of Avenda Health.

Shyam, along with co-founders Brit Berry-Pusey and Leonard Marks, founded Avenda in 2017 with the goal of improving prostate cancer patients’ quality of life. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Personalized Prostate Cancer Care

1 in 8 men will develop prostate cancer in their lifetime. However, despite the large affected population, traditional methods of prostate cancer care lack precision and have experienced minimal innovation in the last 40 years. Prostate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) often underestimates the true extent of the cancer: “Doctors are often guessing where the cancer is and where it extends to,” says Shyam. In fact, 50% of men who receive traditional methods of radiation or surgery end up with urinary, sexual, or bowel complications. Thus, therapies that preserve the quality of life are urgently needed. 

Thankfully, Avenda Health is addressing these concerns. Avenda’s technology FocalPoint™ is a focal therapy system that treats prostate cancer with laser precision in a trusted physician’s office. Using a patient’s MRI and biopsy data, artificial intelligence more accurately predicts where the cancer is within the prostate. With the patient only under local anesthesia, the physician is able to place both a laser needle and a thermal-optical sensor into the specific target tissue. The needle then heats the tissue and causes coagulation necrosis, a type of cell death. Early clinical trials show that this method of prostate cancer care preserves sexual and urinary function, and patients get to return home with no hospitalization, post-operative downtime, or catheterization. 

Shyam affirms the technology’s significance by citing research that reveals patients prefer their quality of life to the length of life, four to one. He expresses this finding “puts the onus on better treatment options and better patient management that balance that quality of life aspect with delivering high-quality care”. 

From Leader to Leader: 3 Lessons Learned 

#1: Trust Your Team

“Hire the best people and trust them”, Shyam says. Shyam and his founding team all met while working as clinical scientists at UCLA. Since then, they have built a team of 25 diverse individuals. Shyam is proud to say that women make up half of Avenda’s leadership team and that he stays focused on “elevating voices, even from junior folks on the team, to make sure that we’re making the best decisions possible and keeping our values front and center”. 

#2: Enjoy the Wins

Shyam also urges individuals entering the medical technologies field to enjoy their wins. Medtech is a fast-paced and dynamic space, causing many to discount their team’s successes; “It is nice to stop and reflect on wins that you and the team have had”, Shyam adds. 

#3: Be Patient 

Lastly, Shyam recognizes that, in an era of disruption, MedTech companies are likely to face significant challenges. Consequently, he reminds himself to be patient in every avenue of his work. Shyam believes one must “be proactive, but also react appropriately” when setbacks do occur, enabling him to lead Avenda with an easygoing attitude. 

Looking Ahead 

In May of 2021, Breakthrough Device Designation by the FDA was awarded to Avenda Health. Designation to this program means Avenda has priority review for clinical trial protocols and commercialization decisions. Shyam was excited to share that this program enabled Avenda’s iQuest technology, the first AI-powered precision oncology platform, to receive FDA clearance earlier this month. Shyam notes this is “a huge step forward in transforming the standard of care in prostate cancer”. 

At the end of the day, Shyam maintains that “seeing the effect on patients is why we are doing what we do”. With an overarching goal of preserving patients’ quality of life, Avenda is evolving the Medtech field through prostate cancer care. Shyam puts it simply: “We always put the patient first”. 

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